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The strange motives and skewed romance behind the Waco Brothers

By Bill Sacks, March 1997

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"When I first started playing, I hung around with people who always seemed to have a Hank Williams or Johnny Cash record tucked in with their punk and new wave records. There were plenty of people (around Minnesota and Wisconsin) who saw country music as the antithesis of punk, who saw things in terms of regional identities instead of taking the musicians on their own terms. The people whom I played in bands with who cared about Hank Williams heard the anxiety in his songs and recognized some part of it in themselves, and, of course, there was his self-destructive streak..."

"I've really liked exploring the margins of country music because it's made me open up as a writer; my old band was all about hard-edged aggression, and now I'm able to approach new songs with different levels of intensity."

A fine example of his new found touch is "Dry Land," a song Schlabowske sings about romantic alienation which brings out the subtleties in the Wacos' musical interaction without compromising their ultimate strengths: boozy harmony, a strong rhythmic core (thanks in large part to drummer extraordinaire Steve Goulding - formerly with Graham Parker's The Rumour and "our ringer," Langford says) and a dedication to the realities of the blue collar experience.

"Trying to create something which speaks to the most honest music which has come out of Nashville over the past 20 years or so is what this band is all about," says Tracey Dear, the Wacos' mandolinist and their most consistently compelling vocal presence.

"When I think about what I'd like to do with this band, I flash back to the best records people like Nanci Griffith and Rosanne Cash have made, and the unaffected personality they put into their work is what I'd like to have us put over. We're headed off to our first gig in Nashville tomorrow, and there's nothing I'd rather do than go there and show people a side of country music they've never really seen before - if I can take what I know from my background in Irish music and add that to all the different revisions of country that Jon and Steve in particular have been working on for years now, I think we can pull it off."

The proof is in the shows the Waco Brothers put on: later that night, with Langford roaring hysterically from his beer, each of the band's lead voices steps forward to put out a series of impassioned pleas on behalf of a musical legacy that unconditionally demands an inventive subversion of banality and hopelessness.

As they blast their way through a version of "Wreck On The Highway" which replaces the Dorsey Dixon original's sanctimonious tone with seething rage, they shows themselves as a group for whom the commitment to giving the music back its bad conscience is a deep-seeded conviction.

They offer up to the tradition the promise of attracting a new audience drawn to that conscience as an antidote to Music City cliches, in which there might lurk new voices whose own emotional rawness explodes expectations in precisely the way Wills, Williams and Cash once did.

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